The NT's accessible Medea gives birth to a star
There are many theatre goers, especially theatrical newbies, who if provided with the unavoidable choice of having a tooth extracted or watching a Greek tragedy by Euripides, would gladly choose the former. Even experienced theatre goers, for whom a night out means an evening at the theatre, may recoil at the thought of a Greek tragedy narrated by a chorus about an act of filicide. To substantiate my claim, I present as evidence one of my theatre buddies who on learning it was a production of Medea he had been invited to see, decided that an evening home alone was the more satisfying option.
Indeed, I think many theatre goers, even those of us who pride ourselves on our ability to be mesmerised by almost any theatrical event, especially if it is one of the great classics of the stage, may ask ourselves do we really want to sit through another production of Medea. I think part of this unwilling reluctance is the thought that the Classic Greek dramas often seem too mythical – we understand the Greek concept of fate, and of how the gods manipulate the primal feelings of rage, revenge, hatred, in their unfortunate victims, leading them to say and do things which no rational person could condone – but the humanity of the characters remain hidden, buried under the weight of the story, and so leaves the audience, or at least me, slightly dissatisfied.
Like listening to one of Aesop’s fables or a Grimm brother’s fairy tale, we can see the essence of the message the story tells, but the characters never quite seem to incarnate. Instead they remain mere caricatures of ourselves, and so they feel safely removed from us. We are not them and they are not us. This distance between audience and the characters the actors are portraying on stage can be the death of any production; once we lose the humanity of the people we see on stage the blood drains from a show and no resuscitation of the remaining corpse is possible. In Greek tragedy this is always an imminent danger.
Therefore when a director is giving the challenge of presenting a play such as Medea she has two choices: appeal to the audience who have come prepared to witness an epic, in which the characters are a kind of mannequin on which these primal instincts are displayed; or to try and embody them in real people that a 21st century audience can relate to. Both options have their dangers – a traditional production holds itself up for unfavourable comparisons, an adaptation can upset traditionalists and fail to appeal to a modern audience.
Thankfully the National Theatre’s recent production of Medea, presented in a new version by Ben Powers, directed by Carrie Cracknell, with sets by Tom Scutt, is a glorious success, and one I feel sure many ardent theatregoers will hold up as a standard by which to judge all future adaptations.
In many ways the show keeps to its traditional format: a Greek chorus commenting on proceedings, Medea as the ‘heroine’ determined to honour her ancestors by seeking revenge, the nurse who serves as Medea’s confident and occasional narrator for the proceedings. Yet it also manages to bring the production to life for the modern audience, even for those who may not picture themselves attending a Greek tragedy, and it is in the small details that it succeeds so well.
The two children remain on stage throughout most of the production: watching TV; eating snacks; reading in the dark using a torch; and settling into sleeping bags as if using their imagination to pretend they are on a camping trip. In the scene where Jason visits Medea at her request, one of the children gives Medea an iphone so she can take a picture of them with their dad. In watching these scenes you feel that this tragedy is happening to a real family, possibly the one who lives next door to you.
In Tom Scutt’s set, which should earn him an Olivier Award, Jason’s wedding party scene takes place in a window of a building above Medea’s temporary home. There we see the wedding cake, the proud father, Jason dancing with his new bride. As Medea wails against Jason’s desertion of her, we witness that desertion being acted out above her.
There are two main elements to Medea’s character, the spurned lover seeking revenge, and the ‘heroine’ determined to set her will against any feelings of motherly affection for her children – an affection which in this production feels so real because we witness Medea interact with her children in ways modern families can so readily identify. Yet even in these scenes Medea remains conflated and the children at times feel hesitant in her company as if they already sense that their mother is someone they cannot trust.
Of course we all know the story ends with that terrible act of filicide, and with Jason, the Greek hero who found the Golden Fleece, now a broken man at Medea’s feet. Medea has extracted her dreadful revenge, but in doing so has destroyed any remaining vestiges of her humanity!
No matter how good an adaptation, the helming of a director, and the creative ability of the set designer, no play can work without its cast, which for this production featured Helen McCrory as ‘Medea’ and Danny Sapani as ‘Jason.’ And though Danny Sapani gives an excellent performance it is Helen McCrory who is the great find here.
McCrory has regularly appeared on the London stage, and I have always found her to be an excellent actor, but here she shines as she has never shone before. She grabs the audience’s attention, and not once does she allow it to falter.
When I recall the great names of British theatre, those upper echelons of the acting world, I instantly think of Maggie Smith, Judy Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Ian McKellan, Derek Jacobi, Ralph Fiennes, etc. What makes these actors stand out for me is not only their ability to convince me they have become the character they are portraying, but also their stage presence. No one can see a performance by Maggie Smith and for one moment forget they are watching Maggie Smith, even when she has transformed herself into another person. For me it is this stage presence along with this magical ability to portray another human being (even if it is a fictional one) that marks out the great stars whose appearance in a cast marks the show as a must see.
Well in this production Helen McCrory manages this extraordinary enchantment. I may be proved wrong, but while I watched her perform throughout the evening I had the tingling sensation I was witnessing the birth of a future dame of British theatre. I for one will never want to miss any production in which she stars in the cast.
I am so happy I decided to give another production of Medea a chance. I witnessed a great Greek Classic made accessible to all, but even more incredibly I witnessed Helen McCrory elbow her place into the line up of theatrical royalty – what more could a theatre lover ask from a production.